Marie Antoinette: Early Life
Marie Antoinette, the 15th child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the powerful Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1755–an age of great instability for European monarchies. In 1766, as a way to cement the relatively new alliance between the French and Habsburg thrones, Maria Theresa promised her young daughter’s hand in marriage to the future king Louis XVI of France. Four years later, Marie Antoinette and the dauphin were married by proxy in Vienna. (They were 15 and 16 years old, and they had never met.) On May 16, 1770, a lavish second wedding ceremony took place in the royal chapel at Versailles. More than 5,000 guests watched as the two teenagers were married. It was the beginning of Marie Antoinette’s life in the public eye.
Marie Antoinette: Life at Versailles
Life as a public figure was not easy for Marie Antoinette. Her marriage was difficult and, as she had very few official duties, she spent most of her time socializing and indulging her extravagant tastes. (For example, she had a model farm built on the palace grounds so that she and her ladies-in-waiting could dress in elaborate costumes and pretend to be milkmaids and shepherdesses.) Widely circulated newspapers and inexpensive pamphlets poked fun at the queen’s profligate behavior and spread outlandish, even pornographic rumors about her. Before long, it had become fashionable to blame Marie Antoinette for all of France’s problems.
Marie Antoinette: The French Revolution
In fact, the nation’s difficulties were not the young queen’s fault. Eighteenth-century colonial wars–particularly the American Revolution, in which the French had intervened on behalf of the colonists–had created a tremendous debt for the French state. The people who owned most of the property in France, such as the Catholic Church (the “First Estate”) and the nobility (the “Second Estate”), generally did not have to pay taxes on their wealth; ordinary people, on the other hand, felt squeezed by high taxes and resentful of the royal family’s conspicuous spending.
Louis XVI and his advisers tried to impose a more representative system of taxation, but the nobility resisted. (The popular press blamed Marie Antoinette for this–she was known as “Madame Veto,” among other things–though she was far from the only wealthy person in France to defend the privileges of the aristocracy.) In 1789, representatives from all three estates (the clergy, the nobility and the common people) met at Versailles to come up with a plan for the reform of the French state, but noblemen and clergymen were still reluctant to give up their prerogatives. The “Third Estate” delegates, inspired by Enlightenment ideas about personal liberty and civic equality, formed a “National Assembly” that placed government in the hands of French citizens for the first time.
At the same time, conditions worsened for ordinary French people, and many became convinced that the monarchy and the nobility were conspiring against them. Marie Antoinette continued to be a convenient target for their rage. Cartoonists and pamphleteers depicted her as an “Austrian whore” doing everything she could to undermine the French nation. In October 1789, a mob of Parisian women protesting the high cost of bread and other goods marched to Versailles, dragged the entire royal family back to the city, and imprisoned them in the Tuileries.
In June 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fled Paris and headed for the Austrian border–where, rumor had it, the queen’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, waited with troops ready to invade France, overthrow the revolutionary government and restore the power of the monarchy and the nobility. This incident, it seemed to many, was proof that the queen was not just a foreigner: She was a traitor.
Marie Antoinette: The Terror
The royal family was returned to Paris and Louis XVI was restored to the throne. However, many revolutionaries began to argue that the most insidious enemies of the state were not the nobles but the monarchs themselves. In April 1792, partly as a way to test the loyalties of the king and queen, the Jacobin (radical revolutionary) government declared war on Austria. The French army was in a shambles and the war did not go well—a turn of events that many blamed on the foreign-born queen. In August, another mob stormed the Tuileries, overthrew the monarchy and locked the family in a tower. In September, revolutionaries began to massacre royalist prisoners by the thousands. One of Marie Antoinette’s best friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was dismembered in the street, and revolutionaries paraded her head and body parts through Paris. In December, Louis XVI was put on trial for treason; in January, he was executed.
The campaign against Marie Antoinette likewise grew stronger. In July 1793, she lost custody of her young son, who was forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest before a Revolutionary tribunal. In October, she was convicted of treason and sent to the guillotine. She was 37 years old.
Marie Antoinette: Legacy
The story of revolution and resistance in 18th-century France is a complicated one, and no two historians tell the story the same way. However, it is clear that for the revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette’s significance was mainly, powerfully symbolic. She and the people around her seemed to represent everything that was wrong with the monarchy and the Second Estate: They appeared to be tone-deaf, out of touch, disloyal (along with her allegedly treasonous behavior, writers and pamphleteers frequently accused the queen of adultery) and self-interested. What Marie Antoinette was actually like was beside the point; the image of the queen was far more influential than the woman herself.